The health of the planet and intra-generational equity – lessons learnt from a pandemic

By Milindo Chakrabarti, Professor, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana and Visiting Fellow, RIS, New Delhi, and Jhalak Aggarwal, Post-Graduate Student, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

Covid-climate-enviromentAmidst the disorder ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic, the spread of the virus has curtailed human destruction of the environment. During lockdowns, less cars moved around and less companies dumped their pollutants. At a time when virtually the whole world was under lockdown, “daily global CO2 emissions decreased by 17% by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport. At their peak, emissions in individual countries decreased by 26% on average” notes a study by the Global Carbon Project published in May. Unfortunately, the trend is reversing with the easing of lockdown measures. The same study predicts that by the end of the year the estimated decline in global carbon emissions will be around 4% if restrictions are lifted, and potentially higher at around 7% if restrictions persist until the end of 2020. Furthermore, to revive and stabilise the economy, attempts are underway to relax environmental regulations and help create new livelihood opportunities to replace those destroyed by the pandemic.

If there is a link between the COVID-19 crisis and emissions declines, reversely, is there a link between the climate crisis and the emergence and spread of the Coronavirus?

Various studies [1,2,3]  point out that high levels of air pollution might have aggravated the incidence of lung infection caused by the virus. Another set of studies [1,2,3] points to the possibilities of frequently recurring zoonotic viral diseases in the future due to drastic loss of wildlife habitats, intensive urbanisation and expansion of agricultural activities. Although more research is needed on this front, there are clear indications that if the climate crisis is exacerbated, by relaxing environmental regulations post-COVID, communities will be displaced and livelihoods lost. We cannot afford to take a path that would yield short term benefits for the few, but ultimately endanger the livelihoods of much larger portions of the world population.

COVID-19 underscores the urgency of ensuring intra-generational equity. Existing methods in socio-ecological science toolkits are robust enough to compare the costs and benefits of human impact on the environment, analysing data from past and present. However, the effectiveness of existing methodological tools to ascertain inter-generational equity, depends on whether a “proper” and “acceptable” rate is used to discount the future – a highly contentious point of debate. The rate at which a group of people chooses to discount the future varies according to its social, cultural and economic value systems.

A thorough understanding of the pandemic and its causal linkage with environmental pollution and ecological destruction would help make the case for sustainable development that ensures intra-generational equity. It would generate political will, facilitate welfare enhancing economic decisions and reduce existing social tensions, alongside protecting the health of the planet. Pragmatically speaking, everyone would be happy if the SDGs were achieved well before 2030. These goals are premised on achieving intra-generational equity.

However, two fundamental changes are necessary. Standard guidelines across the globe today call for analysing the environmental/ecological/social impacts of a project within a very narrow local perimeter, often within the range of 10-15 kilometres from the proposed site. Public hearings to elicit comments and objections are also confined to the participation of local residents that live near the project area. Yet, the environmental, ecological, or even economic and social footprints of a project cannot be limited to a narrow geographical region, due to the steady growth of globalisation. Thanks to decades of efforts to facilitate the equitable distribution of water, river-based projects are now subject to impact assessments that often capture an entire catchment area, even beyond national boundaries. Similarly, projects involving deforestation need to consider their impacts beyond local geography. Loss of wildlife habitat can potentially contribute to global pandemics; loss of carbon sinks will contribute to global warming, creating huge costs to mitigate their effects on the present, let alone the future, generation.

The second important consideration relates to enhancing the bargaining power of local communities engaged in public hearings. Often, they are outcompeted by other stakeholders, namely the immediate beneficiaries of the proposed project who are disproportionately more powerful not only financially, but also in terms of their access to social, political and knowledge resources. This asymmetry prevents meaningful and inclusive negotiations surrounding the design of a project. Additionally, broadening the geographical boundary of stakeholders would help incorporate the interests of a larger number of potential communities that might ultimately be affected by a given project. A note of caution, however, as a larger group of affected persons may facilitate “elite capture” and associated “agency” problems that can potentially damage the aspirations of those being directly subject to distress. Supporting local communities with expert legal services and advice has proven to be a successful solution. For example, engaging experts to negotiate on behalf of First Nation communities in the Manitoba province of Canada ensured the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation a more proactive role in a hydroelectric power dam project – the Wuskwatim Project – directly affecting their community.

COVID-19 has made us conscious of the need to shun competition and embrace co-operation. A further step in that direction would be to institutionalise an impact assessment mechanism that favours inclusive negotiations among equals, and that does away with the current prevailing mechanism – one that promotes a competitive approach to making developmental decisions.